Book reviews

Big Learning

James Lang, the author of four books and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has just published a remarkable new book on teaching and learning, called Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, takes his inspiration from baseball, specifically the term “small ball,” which emphasizes doing all of the little things well, rather than swinging for the fences. His approach is in large part a recognition that faculty, especially part-time faculty, are busy and often not in a place to make large-scale changes to their course design. It is far better to make incremental improvements and have your teaching evolve, than attempt something massive or, worse yet, avoid making changes at all because of the time cost.

Although the book is informed by the latest psychological and pedagogical research, it’s highly engaging and accessible. In the span of one page, Lang references the latest academic research, Aristotle, and ordering tea from his local barista.

Here’s a distillation of Lang’s suggestions, which correspond to its chapters:

1.     Give students frequent opportunities to retrieve what they have learned.

2.     Ask students to make predictions prior to learning will increase their ability to process that material.

3.     Space out learning and mix up the practice of skills (“interleaving”).

4.     Use prior knowledge to help students make connections and expand their networks of

5.     Break down what you want your students to do into small and specific tasks and give them feedback on those tasks.

6.     Have students explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, especially at the mid- and advanced stages of development.

7.     Appeal to your students’ willingness to help other people and make a contribution to their community and the world (“self-transcendence”).

8.     Communicate with your students in a way that praises effort over natural ability to foster a growth mindset.

9.     When you’re ready for some big teaching, consider more activity-based learning, such as service learning, games, and simulations.

As part of his emphasis on the fundamentals, Lang offers a powerful corrective for two common practices (and errors) in higher ed. For one thing, he worries that we are too taken with Bloom’s taxonomy, specifically the notion that we should be spending as much time as possible on higher order skills such as evaluation and synthesis at the expense of more basic and essential skills like remembering and understanding. Regrettably, I am guilty of this. This is the premise behind Lang’s first principle: maximizing the “retrieval effect” will mean students have more knowledge to apply, when they get to that point.

Lang is also concerned how flipping courses—that is, having students’ first exposure to material occur before class meetings and saving class time for more difficult work—has not been matched with making good use of class time, an issue that the tips from Lang’s book will certainly help with.

If there is one essential lesson of the book, it relates to how we start and end our classes, which Lang discussed in two recent articles for The Chronicle. The open of a class should have students reflect on prior learning and prepare them for what’s to come, just as the last few minutes of a meeting should be used for reflection and to seal what has just been covered.

Also noteworthy is the extent to which Lang seamlessly interweaves lessons for onground and online teaching. He firmly recognizes how commonplace online and blended courses have become for teachers and does not treat them as an afterthought, as we find in many other treatments of the subject.

The great virtue of the book is that it speaks equally to novice and seasoned teachers. Even if it’s just getting in the habit of showing up to class 5-10 minutes early to make connections with the more reserved students, it’s impossible to read Small Teaching and not come away with something that can help your teaching tomorrow.

Lang’s hope is that small teaching can lead to some big learning.



How to Read a Book

You might ask yourself, how could anyone possibly fill 419 pages with instructions on how to read? The answer is quite easily, actually.

First published in 1940, Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book became a best-seller and was translated into five languages. It was substantially revised and expanded, with the help of Charles Van Doren, for its final publication in 1972.

Adler was the chairman of the board at the pre-Wikipedia Encyclopedia Britannica and Van Doren is best known for his stint on the 1950s quiz show Twenty One, for which he would later admit to being given the answers in advance.

The original book anticipated the post-War expansion of the public school system and growth in reading. It is designed as a supplement for those having a formal education and as a replacement for those going it on their own. It’s chock full of good tips for readers and writers and teachers of reading and writing.

One of its most basic lessons is the speed of reading. You’d expect that the authors would have an apoplectic reaction to the notion that any book could be read quickly. But that is hardly the case. Rather, Mortimer and Adler embrace fast reading. As they write, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and with comprehension" (43). The trick, then, is not learning to read quickly; it’s knowing the speed a particular book demands. Most young people suffer from an inability to know what any particular book requires.

Mortimer and Adler are not out to make every book a revelation and make every author a prophet. Books are intellectual offerings, to be examined, considered, and compared. There are bad books; in fact, most books are bad—or at least not very good. Most books should be skimmed, if they can’t be avoided.

There are other pieces of writing, however, like the Declaration of Independence, that require a great deal of attention and reflection. “Properly read, for full comprehension, those first two paragraphs of the Declaration might require days, or weeks, or years,” they instruct (42). It is Jefferson’s list of infractions, which comprise the bulk of the document, that can be gone over quickly.

Mortimer and Adler deem comparative analyses—they call it “synoptical”—as the most difficult, which is consistent with what we have come to know in the decades since the book appeared about how people learn.

How to Read a Book is also remarkable for its unapologetic modernism. Books are things to be understood. The idea that books can mean different things to different people doesn’t come till the seventh chapter, and even then it’s only in passing.

“A book is something different to each reader,” they admit. However, that difference is not the goal; it is certainly not to be embraced. “This does not mean, however, that anything goes” (83). The point is to employ a rigorous and purposeful method to minimize the difference between readers and authors. The goal is not interpreting, but good ol’ fashioned understanding.

Yet even as Mortimer and Adler seem inclined to reject postmodern deconstructionism as lazy and gross, they also want to rescue the relevance of theory. In their discussion of the difference between practical and theoretical texts, the authors identify John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, a canonical piece of political philosophy and theory, as a practical text. Why? Because it tells you how you should form a government, silly. They offer up Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason as an example of a purely theoretical text because it is concerned with what is (ontology) and what we can know (epistemology).

How to Read a Book is practical book that deserves a slow read.